Thin Places

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The term “thin place” has occasionally been overused, but it does seem to me to contain a truth that has everything to do with pilgrimage. Iona, Lindisfarne, the ruined priory of Llanthony in the Black Mountains of Wales: these are places whose transparency to the divine goes back to the earliest days of the faith in these islands – perhaps beyond. Alex Klaushofer calls them sites “where the boundary between heaven and earth [is] permeable”; Mark D Roberts says, “a thin place is defined as a place where God’s presence is known with particular immediacy.”

Michelle Van Loon writes of getting lost with her husband in Jerusalem, and ending up at the Western Wall, the last intact remnant of the Temple that was destroyed in AD 70, during the First Jewish-Roman War:

We were standing in a thin place.

Many of us have had these experiences even when we haven’t travelled a step. These moments during a time of worship or prayer, during a period of great sorrow or trial can undo us with an overwhelming awareness of God’s nearness, holiness, and love. Eternity invades time, and the membrane between heaven and earth seems thin as silk. It takes a pilgrim to breathe the atmosphere there.

To me, this is the very essence of pilgrimage. Perhaps such places are not reachable without an inward journey; which can, it seems, be brought about as much by stillness and prayer as by an outward, physical journey.

I have found the thinnest of places along the shore of Lake Galilee, on the beach where Jesus is said to have cooked breakfast for the disciples (John 21.12), on the morning when he restored Peter. I have found the membrane drawn thin as the green light under the trees in the grounds of Walsingham Priory. And I have found the silent air in my own room barely concealing the nearness of God. Pilgrimage contains its own homecoming, even in the journey itself.

CS Lewis suggests that our own soul may be shaped, like a key, to unlock a particular door in the house with many rooms (John 14.2). Each of us is utterly unique, and the route of our pilgrimage, whether it is as apparently well-trodden as the Camino de Santiago, or as well-hidden as our own room (Matthew 6.6), is our own thread in God’s nearness, kept somehow for each of us alone. I think sometimes that these places carry such a charge of numinosity for each of us because they are, like God, outside time as we understand it – without duration, still, inaccessible to understanding or to thought.

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